Using 360 Feedback to Improve

Self-improvement may sound a bit old-fashioned to some. If so, it may be due to an emphasis in recent years on knowing and using your strengths. But our strengths need to be used differently over time and across situations. As we face new or bigger roles, legacy strengths need to serve us differently. What mattered less in the past may matter more with new challenges.  

And one of the best sources of guidance on how our strength-based practices are working (or not) is to ask those affected by them for candid feedback. We best enable them to do this with an assurance of anonymity, using a well-designed 360° survey questionnaire. It’s the “well-designed” aspect of this method that is of special interest to me in this short article, along with its practical uses.  

The approach to 360 feedback I will discuss is a “situated” kind of assessment. It’s highly contextualized in order to make it specifically relevant to the feedback recipient’s situation and role-based challenges. This tailored approach is aided by recent innovations in online 360 technology. Assessment experts are now less reliant on off-the-shelf surveys. They can produce tailored solutions affordably.  

Essential Features of a Well-Designed 360 Solution

I’ve written about how valuable assessment methods can be as an instrument of management. But like most tools and methods, their most effective use is based upon the insights, abilities, and expertise of the user. In this case, I refer specifically to the vital importance of the psychologist who designs a 360 tool as a solution for a situation-specific problem: to address the development needs of this leadership team, in this company, and to address these needs, at this point in time.

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Mark Twain

So, the first essential requirement for developing a well-designed survey tool is finding the right expert to help you do this work. The right expert is one who is business savvy, able to grasp the purpose, goals, issues, and requirements for success by interviewing a select group of company managers. What’s key here is the ability to translate these business relevant factors into behavioral variables that are amenable to measurement and development. 

The second essential feature of a well-designed solution is that it’s informed by a role-based grasp of adult development. Human beings as a species are distinguished by our extraordinary capacity to learn and adapt. As social creatures, our adaptive development is largely driven by role-taking. We learn to be members of a family as children, and then we learn how to be students, how to be workers, how to be intimate partners and parents. And some of us – perhaps the real gluttons for punishment – pursue careers as leaders that consist of ever-increasing role-based challenges.  

The third vital requirement is the capacity to help others connect the dots between feedback data, their role-based responsibilities to others, and the vital few development themes for self-improvement that are most relevant to them. Assessment results are data. They must be contextually interpreted to have practical meaning. And this interpretive work must be done jointly, sometimes with a bit of “tough love” from the psychologist, in order to generate sufficient insight and motivation to act on it. 

The fourth essential ingredient in a well-designed 360 development solution is skill-building. Feedback to team members will usually include thematically common needs for skill-building, i.e., communication, conflict resolution, follow-through, collaboration. But the ways such themes and skill-building apply to each person and his or her role will be different. Development requires “idiographic” insight into how you or I might need to cultivate skilled practices in order to achieve the desired effect in our presence and impact on others.

The Tail is No Longer Wagging the Dog

360 feedback surveys have become a cottage industry over the past three decades. A few theories of leadership and competency models dominated the scene in the early years. That led to off-the-shelf surveys and certification training in how to use them. If that sounds instrument-centric, it’s only because it is. Interpretation is always a vital step in making 360 results meaningful and practically relevant, but standard models had their limitations.   

Now, more user-friendly, high-function online survey platforms are available, allowing experts in assessment to design tailored solutions with ease and flexibility and with reduced cost and turnaround time. These advances are particularly important for smaller businesses whose needs are often quite different than the needs of Fortune 500 organizations for whom traditional, off-the-shelf solutions were designed.

Assessment as Stimulus

Assessment is not the province of HR alone; it’s an essential management discipline.

II have been doing psychological assessment for developmental purposes for over 30 years. Whether the subject is an individual, a couple, a leadership team, or an organization, one thing I learned very early is that results are of two kinds: the reported results of the instrument, and the interpretation of those “raw” results and their implications for practical action. Both are important.  

I have used a wide variety of standardized instruments, and I’ve developed assessment tools, including the first 360° assessment of executive presence. Therefore, I appreciate the technical side of assessment – identifying the questions that must be answered, and the methods and tools that are best designed to answer them. I also recognize that raw results can lie fallow without a rigorous effort to discover their meaning and practical implications for the situation at hand. 

A vital third step in the process of making an assessment process payoff is the need to translate practical implications into action and a sustained course of adaptive implementation. Although action and follow-through are generally prized as virtues in business, it is just these virtues that are often lacking in our use of assessment practices. But let me turn now to the simple theme denoted in my title. 

Framing the Purpose

A thoughtful and intelligent use of assessment methods is guided by a purpose. Examples abound: “We aren’t collaborating well and it’s affecting quality, timely delivery, time-to-market; what’s wrong?” “This team is not working together as a team; what’s going on?” “Jane will be facing new challenges in this stretch assignment, so how do we support her and mitigate unnecessary risks of failure?” 

These are important business questions. They frame issues we need to better understand in order to take action on. In each case, the variables involve human behavior – the ways we think, feel, act and interact with others. That is, we believe there are behavioral variables of performance that significantly affect attitudes, motivations, and action. And as we frame issues in this way, we’re admitting that we’ve tried to address the issues and solve the problems, but we’re missing something. 

There is an issue, a history of struggling with it, perhaps some lessons learned from experience, but a problem remains. And it’s not an academic problem; it’s a problem that has consequences for our business. The sooner we are able to arrive at this insight the better. Why? Because it’s not just a matter of efficiency, solving the problem sooner. Frustration grows when, after numerous efforts to solve the problem, the problem remains.  

Stress and anxiety grow. Attitudes become more negative. People are worn down by the frustration. Fatigue sets in. Management can be questioned – are their goals realistic? Recognizing and facing the fact that we are stuck sooner averts this deterioration of organizational morale. Timely, adaptive solutions bolster resilience: “If at first we fail, we can usually figure things out if we take a step back, assess the situation, and try again.”  That is grounded confidence!

Ground confidence and resilience mean that we are not so easily discouraged, and we are less inhibited about admitting that things are not working out as we want them to. Is that the way things work in your organization? 

Making Results a Stimulus

Results of the assessment indicate patterns, tendencies in thought, feeling, action, and interaction. It’s normal for most people to look for the good and bad or the positive and negative meaning of these results. But that is judgment, and, at least initially, it’s best to suspend judgment, to set it aside while replacing it with curiosity: “How might these results be relevant for me, for us in this situation?” “Are there some impressions and possibilities that arise, some hypotheses?”  

One reason to have an outside expert available when interpreting results is that they have less of a vested interest, they’re less inclined to rush to judgment. They’re able to help those for whom these data are most important explore their meaning and practical implications. Someone skilled in this practice confronts a rush to judgment quickly, in a way that shifts attitudes in a productive direction. It’s this quality of processing the data that generates their stimulus value.   

This quality of mind loosens our attachment to ego needs to justify or defend ourselves. It places the focus on future possibilities for adaptive action. And as a few key insights emerge about how best to halt negative patterns of behavior and what we need to do differently, minds open, possibilities abound. We find ourselves at the wide end of the funnel, able to converge toward agreed-upon actions steps more quickly.  

Give Change Time to Work

“We do not learn from experience, we learn from our reflection upon experience.” John Dewey

Don’t expect too much too fast. Look for the changes in behavior that you believe will enable improved performance. Recognize that there is often a lag time between taking action and honing changes in behavior, on the one hand, and realizing consequential changes in business results, on the other hand. There is a need to trust the process. One way to accelerate learning and validate the efficacy of changes sooner is to frame your first implementation as a pilot. It signals expectations for learning and adaptation. Periodic feedback provides additional stimulus events, which prompt reflection. 

In this way, assessment as a stimulus become a normal part of the adaptive change that any company in the 21st Century must rely upon if they are to not merely survive but thrive!



Is Your Boss in Your Way?

Every supervisor knows that the politically correct attitude is one of encouraging the development of their ambitious, hard-working, hi-potential subordinates, giving them visibility, helping management see their work, notice their potential. So why doesn’t this always happen?

We all want to be noticed, heard, understood, and recognized. And we want to know we’re being noticed in this way by those whose opinion we care most about. In the workplace this includes not only our boss, but our boss’s boss and superiors. This is equally true of those who make a show of seeking attention and those who are more reserved or inhibited about calling attention to themselves.  

Although research from the past 10 years suggests that men are more likely to be seekers of this kind of attention, I believe gender research often trails social realities. Among the professional segment of the workforce today, it’s safe to say this is a virtually universal and ubiquitous phenomenon.  

So, what’s the best way to address your understandable interest in being seen, noticed, and recognized for the value you’re able to contribute to the business? And what’s the role of your boss in helping you with this goal? Or, are there some of you who’ve discovered that your boss is actually part of the problem, that he or she may be blocking your ability to be seen? 

The Obvious Approach

Put it in your development plan! Before that, it may be raised in discussion with your direct supervisor. He or she might welcome your interest and even join you in figuring out ways to get your work and contributions noticed. Let something you are doing become the occasion for meeting superiors who have reason to care about the impact and results of that work.  

This is certainly the more natural means of pursuing your aims. Even those of us who are a bit more inhibited and unlikely to do as well with schmoozing and networking can rally some measure of social confidence when talking about our work (rather than about ourselves). Even if one is a bit anxious, that feeling will be easily dismissed if his or her substantive contributions carry the day.  

Alas, not all managers are quite as skilled or inclined to help the ambitious up-and-comer design this kind of strategy and help execute it. Some supervisors continue to identify so closely with the work that they have trouble stepping back to let their subordinates shine. And some are equally or more eager to grab the attention of superiors, so it’s hard for them to share “time in the sun.”  

That doesn’t mean that this cannot change. I believe that some supervisors would be happy to help if they knew how, and if their own needs were safeguarded. This is simply human psychology — some of us are readier than others to play this role. Getting better takes learning. But isn’t this kind of a catch 22? How can a supervisor lacking this self-awareness break out of their constraints?  

Enter the Savvy HR Executive

Notice that I say “executive.” For an HR manager to intervene in the way I’ll describe, they’ll need to be mature, have credibility with senior leaders, and be able to manage the essential subtleties of the process. Let me describe this approach a bit more concretely.  

First, a talented HR executive (could be a director, VP, or even manager by title — credibility is the key), will usually have a sense of who the supervisors are who may be most vulnerable to blocking visibility of high-potential direct reports. They’re often those who are most eager to get attention themselves. So, the HR executive is likely to know where to look for those who may not be getting their “day in the sun.” 

Second, this HR executive is also better able to find ways to get face time with prospective up-and-comers for any number of reasons. And they are able to recognize how their work might be of interest to senior leaders — what distinguishes the person’s approach to the work and suggests potential for doing more. This will usually be enough for the HR executive to target the right senior leader. 

Finally, the HR executive is able to prepare the senior leader for a skip-level conversation with the aspiring professional. There are always new “programs” that we can gin up in HR, so this individual attention can be framed as being part of a larger program. That way, the supervisor of this individual does not need to feel singled out. Indeed, he or she can indeed be included in some recognition later for his or her role in developing the person.  

But What If I’m the Up-and-Comer Impatiently Waiting?

My suggestion is that if you are concerned that you are not getting enough opportunity to get noticed by senior leadership, you should try going to HR yourself. But do this only after you’ve tried to work things out with your boss for a reasonable period of time. He or she may be sincerely interested and able, but he or she may not think it’s the right time. They may know something you don’t know. 

But after giving it a reasonable amount of time and effort, it is appropriate to go to HR to discuss this concern. The HR person may want to better understand what’s going in your department and may need to learn a bit more about you and your reasons for wanting more exposure at this time. There do need to be business-relevant criteria for orchestrating this kind of developmental experience and making it timely and worthwhile for all parties involved. 

What you don’t want to do is sit privately for too long with your frustrated desires for getting noticed. If the work you are doing and have done warrants notice and attention, and if you’re eager to learn more about how this work is viewed by senior management, there’s probably a way to do it. And this is where HR can really be helpful. It’s their job to do this kind of thing, and to do it thoughtfully.   

Done the right way, it’s a win for everyone involved!

Psychotherapy or Coaching?

Coaching and psychotherapy, what’s the difference? Why choose one over the other? What is it that I need or could most benefit from now?

All good questions for those who’ve come to notice a personal need for help. And as a psychologist who provides both kinds of service I do have an opinion. I believe it’s a question of depth, that is, how deeply the needs concern our fundamental sense of identity, well-being, and confidence.

When the Answer is Coaching

Coaching is responsive to the normal needs we encounter to learn, grow, and adapt in the course of our role-taking at work and outside of work. These needs arise in the form of problems that concern our efficacy and readiness as an agent and actor, perhaps accompanied by signs of struggle. Usually its not only we, but also others - our supervisor, spouse, and co-workers - who recognize our needs for help. They might be characterized as needs for perspective, insight, and feedback, something that helps us clarify the true nature of the problem at hand.

Coaching is an intervention that promotes adaptive development in times of change and challenge. A coach, particularly a psychologically trained coach, provides the reflective pause and assessment (of self and situation) we need to figure things out and develop new ways of thinking, acting, and interacting. Others (e.g., mentors) may also be involved to promote skill building and help us hone our judgment. It’s an example of organizational capacity building, which aims to bolster the productive capacity to perform and generate results.

In some cases, coaching is used to support development of high-potential employees who are being deployed in “stretch assignments.” It’s also used to help managers or executives who are struggling. In the latter case, the aim is to avert failure and get talented persons back on track. Depending upon how long these struggles persist, a person may experience declines in their capacities to meet expectations and reverse the trajectory of performance. Growing levels of stress, strain, and fatigue can undermine confidence. In some cases, this creates a deeper kind of need for help.

When Psychotherapeutic Help is Indicated

The same person who is a candidate for coaching - typically a high-potential professional or executive - can also be a candidate for psychotherapy. The problems that call for psychotherapy may originate at work or outside the workplace. But they run deeper and tend to impact all aspects of a person’s life and relationships. It’s what happens when chronic patterns of stress and strain persist, and when our efforts to adapt and “get a handle on things” fail. It wreaks havoc on our confidence and leaves us feeling discouraged, even hopeless.

These problems transcend the usual role-based challenges addressed by coaching. That’s not to say that there is no connection between these problems and the role-based challenges that can stimulate growth. But, as the Challenge-Development Curve below suggests, beyond a certain point (the “inflection point”) we can be overwhelmed by challenges, our coping resources (cognitive, emotional, social, and practical) can be depleted. At that point we can experience the downward spiral of “decompensation.” We become more intensely distressed, confused, and our sense of self-efficacy is shaken.

12-18 Challenge-Development Curve with Ref Pause.jpg

At this point, we may be entering mood disorder territory (persistent feelings of depression or anxiety). At the root of these conditions is fear and the avoidance of that which we fear. This is when any “chinks in our armor” will be revealed. These kind of fears and insecurities usually operate outside our conscious awareness, which grants them unchecked power to close off whole domains of experience, insight, and adaptive action. This kind of fear steals our joy and make us brittle. But as remote and confusing as these fears may feel, they are discoverable and amenable to resolution in psychotherapy. 

Implications for Action

Now, let’s set this discussion in context. How might persons in your organization or your family be struggling with role-based challenges to perform? Are they able to freely and openly process their feelings and needs for support with others who can help? Do they know how to access and use the resources available to them? Are their struggles beginning to show? Are they seeming less able, more frustrated or confused? Have you broached the discussion of coaching? Or do you believe that they may need something more, perhaps they are a candidate for psychotherapy?

Because of the way coaching has grown, there are many kinds of coaches. Some offer specialized advice based on industry-specific or function-specific experience and expertise. Although they may use 360 feedback tools or other style-based assessments, their primary qualifications center on practical problem solving. Others are trained as psychologists or at least have advanced training in psychologically relevant approaches to adult learning and development in an organizational context. But even these may not be the right professional to help someone whose needs run a bit deeper and call for psychotherapeutic help.

It was estimated over 30 years ago that 10-15% of people presenting for coaching may be experiencing “clinical” issues - the severity and/or chronicity of their distress qualifies them for clinical care. If anything, that estimate is probably low given changes in the workplace in the intervening time. So, I’d recommend that that HR leaders, managers, and spouses and partners normalize the practice of addressing these deeper needs at critical moments in our lifetime. In most major cities you’ll find psychologists or other mental health professionals who do this work, who understand this population and their environment. It should be a normal part of our approach to wellness and self care!

Confidence in Professional Couples

It’s neither magic nor mystery. Confidence, properly understood, is a strength of character. It’s not inborn, it’s cultivated in the person within a social context. The first context is one’s family of origin. It’s further developed as life expands outside the home to school and the workplace. And then ultimately, it’s cultivated within the intimate dynamics of a healthy and adaptive couple’s relationship.

 As a virtue, confidence involves both inner feelings and outer expressions of sympathy, empathy, humility, authenticity, and moral truth. These are social and emotional sensitivities and sensibilities that attune us to others and to our direct experience. Perhaps you wonder about the meaning of “moral truth” in this context. How does truth fit or apply in the context of other more affective terms?  

The truth I have in mind when I speak of moral truth is the felt truth through which we know and affirm values. It’s an intuitive way of knowing without which we would not be fully human. It’s the quiet center of an equanimous mind that is able to recognize what is good, right, proper, and appropriate. It helps us separate the wheat from the chaff in discursive reasoning. 

Strictly rational-logical thought is not sufficient for producing the quality of reasonableness we associate with wisdom and good judgment. So, the confidence I am addressing, runs deeper than the confidence I have in my technical skills (intellectual, social, or physical). We might better differentiate that more technical form of confidence as competence, even a certain kind of self-efficacy.  

Confidence as Moral Substrate

In a committed couple’s relationship, what are we committed to? Of course, it’s the bond, the special “we” that we claim to be. We are committed to a relationship of care, mutual concern, and love. Care is an act. Mutual concern is an attitude. Love is a kind of self-surrender, or as Frost put it, “less than two but more than one.” Intimacy then is the art of preserving this attention to the two and the one


And what makes this discussion specific to professional couples? It’s not that these themes are exclusively relevant to them. They’re equally if differently relevant for all couples. The specific relevance for professional couples is perhaps more due to my experience, which is mostly with professionals.

In brief, confidence for in professional couple is distinctive in the occasions that call for its proper expression. It’s when I assert my aspirational energies of becoming (ambitions) while keeping fidelity to my duties of care for my partner and the life we share. For love to be abiding, it requires acts of care. 

For acts of care to be sufficient and appropriate they must be informed by a mindful state of mutual concern. These kinds of concern must bear the mark of the goals and ways of being that normatively define the life we share. And these considerations become complicated in the course of pursuing our careers and living our lives as professionals and as a family.  

Confidence, as a moral substrate, is the sense of assuredness we have that our roles, goals, and ways of being are healthy and adaptive – i.e., they are working for both and for all of us. When this confidence is shaken, we’ll know it first through our feelings: “Life is feeling too difficult, stressful, imbalanced.” Minor perturbations, of course, are natural. But when the troubled feelings persist and begin dividing us, we lose confidence. But when we face our situation and work through it, we regain confidence.  

Confidence is Moral, Not Moralistic

Being moralistic toward one another is being too ready to judge one another. It’s a negative judgment about the person, whereas being moral about our issues is to invoke a values-based mindset and an attitude of reflection. From this attitude, we first seek to notice the felt sources of pain, strain, and loss. We treat these noticed feelings (observations) as data that help us trace a path to the causes of pain. We see, in this way, paired with the issues, the opportunities for adaptive change. 

It can be particularly important to notice our individual fears and insecurities, the things we grasp most tightly for fear of losing. These feelings can grow as we become divided by changing circumstances and as we fail to check our alignment through the intimate dialogue that reinvigorates mutual concern. In this context, moral is the antithesis of moralistic. Moral is suspending the aggressive-defensive impulses that cause moralistic judgment. It’s the openness in our hearts for noticing what, not whom, is lacking.